Where Forgotten Films Dwell

Welcome to this site! It exists for one reason: to preserve the memory of films that have been forgotten about or under-appreciated throughout the ages. Take a seat, read an entry, leave a comment. You might discover your new favorite movie!

Monday, March 31, 2014

Hellzapoppin'

Directed by H. C. Potter, Joseph A. McDonough, Edward Cline
1941
The United States of America


Deep within the bowels of Hell, demons stuff victims dressed in lavish fashions into giant barrels labeled “Canned Guy” and “Canned Gal.” As they sharpen their pitchforks, turn women in expensive dresses on spits over open fires, and torment the eternally damned, they sing a happy song.

Hellzapoppin/Ol’ Satan’s on a tear
Hellzapoppin/They’re screamin’ everywhere
See the Inferno/of Vaudeville
Anything can happen/And it probably will!!


Suddenly a taxi appears and two beleaguered men fly out onto the ground after a tidal wave of ducks, dogs, and other animals inexplicably crammed into the back seat. One looks up and mutters to the other: “That’s the first taxi driver that ever went straight where I told him to!” These two unfortunates are vaudevillian legends Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson. They have arrived in Hell for possibly the most nightmarish reason of all: making a Hollywood film. For they have been given the grim responsibility of making Hellzapoppin’, perhaps the most subversively anarchic comedy to ever spring from the forehead of the Hollywood studio system. Is it any wonder why at the beginning we are treated to a title card reading: “......any similarity between HELLZAPOPPIN’ and a motion picture is purely coincidental.”


Hellzapoppin’ was an “adaptation” of a musical revue written by Olsen and Johnson that had been a smash hit on Broadway, running for more than 3 years for 1,404 performances. At the time, it was the longest-running Broadway musical in history. The revue was a model of controlled chaos. As reporter Celia Wren recounted: “The smash hit "Hellzapoppin" was a smorgasbord of explode-the-fourth-wall nuttiness: sight gags; comedy songs; skits abandoned partway through; cameos by audience stooges; an absurdist raffle; and in a trademark stunt, a man who wandered through the theater hawking an ever-larger potted tree.” So Olsen and Johnson were confronted with a problem: how do you adapt a musical with no real plot that heavily relied on an interactive circus atmosphere?


The answer was to make a movie about Olsen and Johnson trying to make a movie of Hellzapoppin’. Confused yet? Let me explain.


After the opening number in Hell, it is revealed that it is all a Hollywood sound stage. They are confronted by a director (Richard Lane) and a nervous screenwriter (Elisha Cook Jr.) who want to pitch them a script for the film. The suggested film is about a love triangle between three “disgusting rich” aristocrats: “young fella” Woody Taylor (Lewis Howard), playwright Jeff Hunter (Robert Paige), and wannabe actress Kitty Rand (Jane Frazee). Kitty is putting on a Red Cross benefit at her estate and Olsen and Johnson are hired as prop-men. As Woody, Jeff, and Kitty play their game of romantic musical chairs, Olsen and Johnson run about trying to gather all of the outlandish props that the show will need. Later, when they realize that Kitty will marry the wrong man if the show is a success, they sabotage the benefit with a menagerie of pranks and tricks. Other notable characters include Hugh Herbert as Quimby, a detective and master of disguises who bounces around the film spreading chaos wherever he goes like a mythical trickster, Mischa Auer as Prince Pepi, a lecherous European aristocrat who poses as a fraud for free food and sympathy, and Martha Raye as Betty Johnson, Chic’s man-hungry, vivacious sister.


To add to the mayhem, there is another layer to the narrative: an easily distracted projectionist played by Shemp Howard who literally runs the film from his booth. Throughout the film he interacts with both Olsen and Johnson in the framing narrative and Olsen and Johnson in the film-within-the-film. Many of the film’s best gags come from their interactions: he repeatedly fails to keep the camera focused on the principle characters (instead turning the camera to beautiful women), he gets reels mixed up and throws the unfortunate duo into a Western, and, in the film’s most ingenious gag, gets the film stuck, thereby trapping half of the characters onscreen in the bottom half of the frame and the other half in the top half of the frame. These gags are not only effective; they also demonstrate the duo’s ability to appropriate the capabilities (and limitations) of the cinematic medium for comedic purposes.


It’s an unwritten rule that a musical is only as good as its musical numbers. So, thankfully, Hellzapoppin’ does not contain any musical misfires. Two numbers in particular almost knock the house down. The first is Watch the Birdie, an impromptu ode to photography wherein Raye almost steals the whole damn picture away from Olsen and Johnson. As she sings and swings with all of the skill and abandon that only a lifelong vaudevillian can muster, footage of people diving into a pool is paused, reversed, and played over and over again.

 
The second number is a show-stopping Lindy Hop performed by the black employees of Kitty’s estate. Much like a similar sequence in the Marx Brothers classic A Day at the Races (1937), the Lindy Hop number gave a chance for otherwise disenfranchised black performers to demonstrate their ferocious talents.


Also like many of the Marx Brothers’ films, Hellzapoppin’ devotes a couple of musical numbers to the bland romantic couples who, for the most part, serve as dull straight-men (and women) to the madcap antics of the film’s stars. But surprisingly, Hellzapoppin’ managed to make these segments memorable as well. One early sappy love ballad is frequently interrupted by title cards announcing: “Attention Please! If Stinky Miller is in the audience -- GO HOME!”


Another ballad is intercut with sequences of choreographed synchronized swimmers, predicting similar numbers in future films starring Esther Williams. But even more fascinating is how the filmmakers transitioned between shots of the singers and shots of the swimmers: they would frequently take a close-up of an inconsequential object, like a white rose or a fan, and do a fade-in of the swimmers arranged in a similar pattern.


These sequences speak to the underlying genius of Hellzapoppin’: it is just as much a piece of cinema as it is an adaptation of a theatrical musical. Instead of simply moving from one to the other via an edit or a tracking shot, the filmmakers utilized a technique that would have been nearly impossible to replicate on stage. But in fact, most of the film could be described that way. I couldn’t imagine a film like Hellzapoppin’ existing (and succeeding) in any other medium. Ingeniously metafictional, distinctly cinematic, ruthlessly creative, joyfully anarchic, and most importantly, deliriously entertaining, Hellzapoppin’ is a treasure of the American musical comedy tradition.

12 comments:

  1. Hi, Nate!
    Had to go back and make sure I was in the right place. Nate writes a review on a musical... but it has Hellza in the title. Everything is okay! ha ha

    I haven't seen this one. (No surprise there)
    Really enjoyable, Nate. Especially your astute observations like the cinematography. You always notice things that make me want to go back and re-watch, watch just to pick up on things I missed.
    I hope you're planning on doing our CMBA Blogathon.
    See ya!
    Page

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sorry I can't participate in the blogathon this time around. Maybe next time!

      Delete
  2. Must...watch...film! Thanks for highlighting this. I'd never heard of it, but I'm definitely going to track it down now.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Glad to hear it! That's why I write this blog!

      Delete
  3. Replies
    1. Oh definitely. It's a classic! Much like the film!

      Delete
  4. It's interesting how this made the transition from stage to the silver screen. I love meta films so I'll have to check it out at some point.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. When you do, be sure to let me know what you think, y'hear?!

      Delete
  5. I read somewhere that Joe Dante, the director of Gremlins and Matinee, loves this film to the point he makes references to it in his films. Let's just hope that Hellzappoin' becomes available so everyone will enjoy its splendor.

    ReplyDelete
  6. If I'm not mistaken, it's available on DVD in some countries. But it should become available in ALL of them!

    ReplyDelete
  7. This was on TV when I was a kid in the late 50s/ early 60s. We loved it!!! Especially, when the Frankenstein monster shows up. The Universal monster movies were huge on TV then and this was like a major cameo appearance by "Frankie".

    ReplyDelete